Robot waiters? Chefs rage against the machine

 Meals on wheels: Wandsworth’s Gravity is home to strangely kitten-esque robot waiters   (Press handout)
Meals on wheels: Wandsworth’s Gravity is home to strangely kitten-esque robot waiters (Press handout)

While it’s unclear exactly when it became the custom for waiters to want to be on first-name terms — “Hi guys, I’m Matty, I’ll be looking after you tonight” — such enforced intimacy may soon be seeing itself out. Waiters, it seems, are a dying breed. This isn’t the staffing crisis (part five) or even the rise of self-service: it’s the rise of the machines. Robot waiters, a concept presumably dreamt up in a particularly naff episode of Seventies-era Dr Who, are eerily wheeling themselves into dining rooms across town.

M Restaurants started the trend a Christmas ago with a droid whizzing about balancing a bottle of Veuve Clicquot on its tray, rocking around the restaurant to keep diners in high spirits (“slightly clunky but brilliant” was M founder Martin Williams’ judgement on his rechargeable employees). All very jolly, though the press images hilariously showed the ‘bot with a scowl on its face, which hardly felt particularly festive.

Strangely kitten-esque machines offer meals on wheels at Wandsworth’s Gravity, a three-storey, self-styled “department store of fun”. They were brought in last October to combat the pandemic staffing shortage. Bella, Finn and Ollie can dish out five dinners at once and even get paid the London wage, with the money going to children’s charity Together for Short Lives, rather than their robot overlords. Lately, Instagram has been whirring with the same battery-powered waiters — well, the same model, no intel on whether Bella and co are moonlighting — at the new Din Tai Fung in Selfridges: two coolly glide about laden with dumplings and generally looking rather sweet. They don’t yet interact though, so asking for extra sauce is out. Signing the air with an invisible pen to ask for the bill is presumably also pointless.

It’s not a trend every restaurateur seems keen on. “Robot waiters are where dreams die,” says Passione Vino owner Luca Dusi, a man never knowingly on the fence. “I don’t care if a waiter sports tattoos, red socks, Birkenstocks, or goes for bow ties and tailored jackets — so long as they make you fall in love with a place.”

Dusi is in rambunctious company. “Will I ever replace a waiter at Bentley’s with a robot? Not on your nelly!” said Richard Corrigan. “Hospitality is at the heart of everything we do in the restaurant and that’s something you just can’t replace by a computer.” Kitchen Table chef James Knappett drily agrees: “Our team will always have more passion than a robot.”

You’d hope so, though it’s not always obvious at some places. Still, one boon of waiters without hearts or feelings or bills to pay — all that pesky human stuff — is that presumably tips are out. With the cost of just about everything sky-rocketing, I’m all for keeping my 12.5 per cent if no-one loses out. Domo arigato, Mr Roboto.